Book Review: The Big Smoke – New Zealand Cities 1840-1920, by Ben Schrader

Available in bookshops nationwide

cv_the_big_smoke_nz_citiesTraditionally, New Zealand historians and the books which arise from their studies, deal with the close relationship between the land and the establishment of a new colony. Perhaps it is this focus which has clouded the reality for many settlers. Ben Schrader begins The Big Smoke with an account of his own family. His great-great-Grandfather arrived from London in 1862. This was the start of his family of urban dwellers with no close ties to a farm, or region.

Schrader explores the very limited research dealing with urban centres: their establishment, their growth and the features of such areas. To better manage this huge topic he has limited the book to the period 1840-1920 and made a focus of those towns which met the early criteria for being declared a city.

1911 was an important year in New Zealand, although the date is not often recognised as such. In the 1911 census, more people were identified as living in cities and boroughs than in rural areas. This trend has continued with the 2014 census showing 86% living in cities. Schrader has identified a lack of research, reflection and writing on this very important aspect of life in New Zealand. Apart from an early report based in South Dunedin (the Caversham Project), we have very little accessible information on the growth of cities. Schrader has provided a response to this lack, with a book which is both scholarly and readable.

Scrader focuses in his book on eight aspects which are chronological but also thematic. These include foundations of the cities, material concerns, culture, sociability and conflict on the street, Maori and environmental concerns. He also touches on religion and the role of women. This is no dry tome. The pages are illustrated with maps, early photographs, sketches and documents. I was particularly taken by a sketch of Holland Street, Wellington in 1892. It was drawn by the Medical Officer and shows the sewer which leaked and contaminated the surrounding soil. This was the site of a typhoid outbreak. This attention to detail makes the book more than a dissertation for academics.

I was a student of Human Geography at University, but found myself looking to distant shores for my studies. The focus was on older established cities with quality data to support ideas. Schrader points out that his book is a starting point and there are many possibilities for further research and reporting on our own situation. In light of the recent housing crisis and pressure to expand our urban areas, this book is a timely reminder that we must take care to grow in ways which reflect our past as well as our future.

While too bulky to be a coffee table book, this is a great read for anyone with an interest in urban New Zealand and how we got to be where we are now.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

The Big Smoke: New Zealand Cities 1840-1920
by Ben Schrader
Published by Bridget Williams Books
ISBN 9780947492434


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